As the mourners took their seats in preparation for spoken eulogies from his stepson and a minister, they heard playing from the speakers over their heads the boisterous sound of The Lone Ranger theme song. What should have been a moment for quiet reflection was interrupted by the sound of giggling and surprise. My husband had made a playlist for his stepfather’s memorial service, and while the old television theme song was an intentional choice, it was not the song meant to be played at that point in time. The funeral director quickly re-ordered the soundtrack, but the consensus after the service was that his stepfather would have loved the whole mistimed mistake.
Music speaks to many of us in a way no other medium does. Music elicits joy. It creates cathartic soul cleansing. Walking down memory lane becomes a trip in a time machine, transported to places, times and feelings of before. Music connects us soul-to-soul and heart-to-heart. Creating this soul and heart connection is why we choose to sing together in worship services, carefully curate the songs to which we walk down the aisle or dance together in wedding ceremonies. Music asks us to ponder and answer questions about ourselves and our lives, and likewise with a quiet urgency, prompts us to consider what we think and feel about the end of lives, ours and others.
In order to better explore these thoughts on music and mortality, I reached out to some friends of mine that are musicians and music lovers and asked them to give me a few songs they’d like played at their funerals.
Kevin Gibson has been a friend of mine for decades. He is a freelance writer and author, music lover and a musician in a band, The Uncommon Houseflies. “Music has been a life-time passion/hobby . . . I bought my first Beatles record when I was 9 or so, and ever since then it’s just kind of been something I’ve always been interested in.” He describes his favorite genre – if he had to pick – as power pop or pop punk.
- “In My Life” by the Beatles. “That’s a song of reflection, a kind of wistful look back. That’s the obvious one that I’m sure a lot of people use. The rest of my choices are not so obvious.”
2. “Mona’s Prayer (Harmony Rocket #3) by Charlie Chesterman. “The narrator is telling someone, put all the bad stuff in the past. Things will be better going forward. It’s a song that if I’m in the right mood can consistently make me tear up because of the sentiment, and the way he sings it. It’s the one I’d want to get everybody good and crying at the funeral.”
3. “I Hate Everything” by Young Fresh Fellows. “That’s mostly because I’m a smart ass. It’s a few minute song about, ‘I hate everything. I hate everything. I don’t know how I got to be this way,’ but at the very end it says, ‘I hate everything, but you.’ So it’ll end on a positive note.”
4. “Life’s a Gas” by Joey Ramone. “It’s one he wrote about, on your way out, you don’t have to worry about me. Things are cool. Life’s a gas, that kind of thing. Again, Joey has that kind of voice that at the right time can get me to tear up.”
5. “What a Wonderful World” by Joey Ramone. “It’s an obvious song, but not the obvious version. It’s very much a happy punk version which always made me feel good and happy. Of course, the message is obvious. Even though I’m a cynical bastard I still see some of the good things.”
Next, I talked to Malcolm Turner who is a Louisville composer and musician, focusing on composing lately due to COVID-19. He shared his philosophy on music and a funeral song with which he had personal experience. “Music is fun. Music is expressive for depicting emotions. Music is capable of expressing the extremes – extreme joy, extreme despair – and everything in between. It’s part of what makes us human.” He couldn’t narrow down a favorite genre because he likes such a wide range of music. He likes music that is technically complicated, that requires what he called “virtuosity.” He’s a fan of rock music, especially progressive rock, but also enjoys Beethoven, Brahm, Wagner and Moller, especially Moller at the moment. “There’s something to be said for the early Gregorian chants as well.”
Malcolm’s eclectic taste is only one reason he hasn’t really planned or thought much about music for his own funeral. Instead, he said he’d probably leave the musical selections at his funeral up to the organizer, because it would be mostly for them. He did share the song he played at his late-wife’s funeral.
- “Fire and Rain,” by James Taylor. “She had told me early on, it was something she always wanted played at her funeral. So I did. I don’t know if you’re familiar enough with the song: ‘I woke up this morning and heard that you were gone. Oh Suzanne, the plans they made that put an end to you,’ whatever. And her name’s Suzanne, so it was obvious. Even if she hadn’t told me, I probably would have done that.”
When he hears the song now, it makes him sad in a way. “It’s tied in with her. I remember all the good times and the bad times. Maybe melancholy, rather than sad. It’s been 15 years now”
Bob Rutherford, a former neighbor of mine “who has chipped out a living” as a musician for 35 years, said music has been his life and has always been there for him, as natural a part of his life as tying his shoes. He, too, has eclectic musical tastes, although he’s become a big fan of “bee bop” jazz the past couple of decades.
Bob said he never really wants a funeral. “I don’t want a bunch of people in a room kinda’ lying about what a great guy I was. I have thought about this a lot to tell you the truth over the years. I think if I had a funeral, rather than having somebody speak, I’d rather just have a playlist.”
His funeral playlist would include:
- “So What,” by Miles Davis. “I probably spend more time listening to jazz, and probably have for the last 15 – 20 years than anything. I think this one kind of sums that up for me as far as my views on jazz and what I dig there.”
- “Beast of Burden,” by The Rolling Stones. “I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s ultra-simplicity. It’s the quintessential groove. The way the song feels. It’s just a masterpiece.
- “Old Violin,” by Johnny Paycheck. “I think it’s the most beautiful country song ever written. I think it’s the quintessential country song.”
- “Thorn in My Pride,” by The Black Crowes. “Lyrically it means a lot to me. Once again, the feel of the song, I don’t know if it’s because I’m a musician first and foremost, but I don’t listen to songs the way other people listen to them. I can listen to a song and have loved it for years before I go ‘Oh, wow. I love that line, lyrically.’ A lot of times, I don’t even listen to the words. The groove and feel of the music means more to me than anything.”
- “Gimme Shelter,” by The Rolling Stones. “If I had to build a playlist the thing I’d end with is one that is really thought out. There’s a specific reason I’d end with it. From whenever I was a kid, going to concerts, and I don’t know if it was only a Louisville thing, but right before the concert got ready to start and the lights went down, they’d always play that intro from Gimme Shelter. It was always that. Boom! It would come on and the lights would go down and the crowd would start screaming. To me it was always a sign of things to come, a sign that something cool was about to happen. Something good is about to come. It was just a promise of something better ahead. So as it relates to a funeral, if you’ve spread good karma in your lifetime and there is an afterlife, then something good is going to happen.”
Sydney Magers is a singer in Juice Box Heroes, a local cover band, and musical theater performer. “In the world of musical theater, one of my favorite analogies about music is when a character has so much emotion, all he can do is sing about it. It’s universal. Music is the ultimate display of emotions. It really does apply to all kinds of music. It doesn’t matter if it is in a show or not.”
- “Amazing Grace,” by Andrea Bocelli.* “That one has been played at just about every funeral I’ve attended. It’s such a great send-off song. I don’t think it matters about religion or not, it’s just a beautiful song. It’s somber but uplifting at the same time. When it’s sung acapella or with just a few voices is when it is most affecting to me.” (*I picked this arrangement and the artist.)
- “Wish You Were Here,” by Pink Floyd. “It’s a song that has haunted me since I was a kid, and my uncle passed away. I had never heard that song before, and they played it at his funeral. It just stuck with me. I very poignantly remember that was one of the first times I really saw my dad display emotion in a big way.”
- “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra. “I’ve heard that done at a few funerals. I think it’s a last stand kind of song. You can’t help but smile when you listen to it even though it’s a sad occasion. It’s someone saying, ‘I did it my way, that’s how I lived my life, and that’s how we did it.’ “
- “For Good,” by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel from Wicked. “I never thought that would be a funeral song. This past year my vocal teacher passed away, and we, all her previous students, were asked to sing it at her funeral. It was one of the most rewarding and hard things I’ve ever had to do. That song was very poignant.”
- “Landslide,” by Fleetwood Mac. “That’s one that always gets me any time I hear it. It reminds me of a scene from a movie that always made me sad. I always pictured that as a song that could be sung in that kind of way.”
And now it’s my turn. I am by no means a music geek. While my husband would give mix CDs to his friends at Christmas and still thoughtfully creates playlists for road trips and our anniversary, I’m more of a put my iPhone on shuffle and see what happens. After some thought, I came up with the list that follows.
- “Auld Lang Syne,” by James Taylor. While this is traditionally a New Year’s song, I love the sentiment of reminiscing and remembering our friends, ones we’ve known for a lifetime and have not spent enough time with. I have a group of friends I’ve known since elementary school, and this song reminds me of the value they have added to my life for decades and the paths and journeys we’ve taken together.
- “Cigarette,” by The Smithereens. A friend played this song for me the last time we were together before I moved away after my sophomore year of high school. It always reminds me of saying goodbye when we aren’t ready to. It’s a reminder that time together is fleeting, sometimes only lasting as long as it takes a cigarette to burn up and away.
- “Bookend Theme (Reprise),” by Simon and Garfunkel. I grew up listening to Simon and Garfunkel and other folk music. This short poignant song can move me to tears so easily. Oh, what a time it was.
- “I’ll Be Seeing You,” by Billie Holiday. This classic break-up song powerfully reminds us that no one is ever really gone. Our loved ones, whether dead or living but no longer in our lives, remain everywhere that’s important in our lives. I’m not one to visit a loved one’s grave, because I believe our loved ones are everywhere with us even when they’ve gone, as this song illustrates so beautifully.
- “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” by Baz Luhrmann. It might be a pop-ified commencement speech from 1999, but what better time to instill some advice for living than at a funeral? I was a decade past graduation when this song was released, but the advice had value for me then and another two decades later it’s still a valuable reminder for us all.
- “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by Simple Minds. I may change my mind about some of these songs as time goes by, but this one will definitely be my closing song. I was a child of the 80s. The movies of John Hughes were the touchstones of my life. This song was our anthem. And I fully expect everyone to defiantly pump their fists in the air as they exit, too.
I invite you to spend some time thinking about the songs and music that speaks to and moves you. Defining what music you love helps others know and remember you, and there’s an excellent organization that can help you do it. Story Spot started with “the simple idea that you could tell the story of any person’s life with music. Simply choose 10-20 songs that they love, that define them, or that mark their life’s milestones.” Since then, Story Spot has added the ability to add photos, slide shows, audio and video files. It’s a convenient way to do work on and leave a recorded legacy all in one simple place. And right now, Story Spot is offering packages free until May 31st. You should really check them out at storyspot.com, and share some with me in the comments.
I want to acknowledge the podcast, “My Fantasy Funeral,” for some of the inspiration for this blog.